It’s a best man’s worst nightmare: forgetting the rings. It’s also exactly what happens in 1994 Britcom Four Weddings and a Funeral, where Charles (played by Hugh Grant) accidentally mislays the wedding bands of his soon-to-be-wed friends. Thankfully, the guests donate two emergency replacement rings: a distinctly unromantic skull ring for the groom and a ring featuring a giant rainbow-coloured heart for the bride.
Back in reality, it’s unlikely that most of us will experience this. In the majority of cases, weddings tend to go off without a hitch (apart from the actual hitching), including the exchanging of rings, a long-held practice in many countries and cultures throughout the world. For all their ubiquity, little thought is given to exactly why we wear them, so for those of you wondering, here is a brief history of the wedding ring.
From Bones to Poseys
If you’re looking for “something old”, you could do worse than head to Ancient Rome or Greece, where the first wedding rings were worn (the modern practice of exchanging them is thought to have originated from Christianity). Engagement rings (or betrothal rings) are also thought to have originated in Ancient Rome, though some historians believe the practice began in Egypt.
Rather than precious metals, early ceremonial rings were made from ivory, leather, bone and later, iron. Silver and gold could also be worn if you were wealthy, but diamonds did not appear until 1477, when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissioned the first ever diamond engagement ring to Mary of Burgundy.
Victorians popularised elaborate engagement “posey” rings featuring diamonds alongside enamels, precious metals and stones crafted into flower shapes. Diamond rings continued to be worn into the Edwardian era, this time in filigree settings.
De Beers’ 1947 marketing campaign (featuring their famous tagline “a diamond is forever”) forged a connection in the minds of consumers between the sparkling, clear gems and lifelong wedded bliss. The most popular cut is the 58-facet round brilliant, closely followed by princess, emerald and oval cuts.
With the diamond trade coming under close scrutiny in recent years, more couples are now seeking fair-mined and eco-friendly options such as lab-created diamonds, for a more ethical way to say “I do”.
Rings Around the World
Circles are widely regarded as a symbol of completion and timelessness. The circle also appears as the mathematical figure zero, which also represents new beginnings, such as a couple embarking on married life together.
Not all cultures use rings as a visual symbol of marriage: some wear other items such as head coverings, prayer shawls, or alterations to head or facial hair: in Hutterite and Amish communities in Canada and the United States, men remain clean-shaven until they are wed, while the Fula women of West Africa wear small amber beads and coins in their hair (married women wear larger beads).
The finger a wedding or engagement band is worn on has cultural significance: in the West, it’s traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, as are engagement rings, after which the wedding ring is typically worn below the engagement ring.
In Europe, the tradition is to wear a wedding ring on the right hand, while in some areas of South America, Germany, the Netherlands and some parts of India, couples wear an engagement ring on their right hand before switching it to their left once they are married.
This particular choice of digit has a sweet, albeit slightly unusual reason behind it: an ancient tradition originating in Ancient Egypt known as vena amoris, a latin term referring to the vein thought to connect from the fourth finger of the left hand directly to the heart. One exception to the rule can be seen in orthodox Christian weddings, where the engagement ring is worn on the left ring finger and the wedding band on the right.
The evolution of wedding band styles can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire, when rings were engraved with figures of the married couple, until christianity was established and the symbols became more religious in nature.
Throughout the European Middle Ages, jewellery was simplified (anything too ornate was seen as too extravagant). Other noteworthy designs include Turkish puzzle rings (if taken off, they were designed to fall apart) and interlocking joint or “gimmel rings” made popular during the Renaissance, featuring a pair of engraved hands.
The fede ring (also known in Celtic cultures as the claddagh or fáinne Chladaigh), also features two hands clasping a crowned heart (intended to represent the moment where rings are exchanged during a wedding ceremony). Originating in the 13th Century, it’s a style that continues to be popular to this day, alongside contemporary designs ranging from wood-inlay wedding bands to resin shaped into all manner of designs, even multi-colour hearts.